In normal conversation, distance is generally converted to time; something is ‘five minutes down the street’ or ‘a few minutes up the road’. This approach of distance-as-time shapes how we evaluate different social choices and opportunities. Too far often means too long which means too much bother.
For urban planners, this dynamic has informed our thinking in a number of ways.
Travel time will shape the adoption of particular modes of transport. A car journey will be preferable to walking or cycling for distances over three kilometres. But when you walk or cycle, you go straight to the destination. With driving, you have to find a place to park, then walk to the destination. If we remove parking opportunity, we disincentivise driving. If we don’t provide easily walked and navigated access to train stations, from multiple directions, we can double the total journey length of an urban fringe to work-centre trip and completely invalidate the business case that justified a rail system. The 2020 pandemic has challenged many of our underlying assumptions.
An end to the thirty-minute city?
We have been slowly producing cities where the opportunity to engage in work, recreation and commerce is within 30 minutes of your front door, where a significant number of people travel in two short daily peaks. But when work is concentrated in city centres and there is a widely distributed and growing population, the complexity of delivering a true 30-minute city (TMC) is beyond many places. However, this year might have provided a new direction.
Survey after survey is showing that, post-pandemic, roughly 40% of people wish to work from home 40% of the time. Our own surveys support this finding. This is actually great news for both city dwellers and planners, who are endlessly stressed by the time/distance demands of existing cities: they are about to live and work in something more like the 15-minute village (FMV).
If those preferences lead to a real redistribution of work (and many major employers in tech and professional services around the world have already announced a pivot to home working), that will, in turn, lead to more local service and retail jobs in the communities where people actually live. Suddenly, there are above-average-wage knowledge workers at home who need an excuse to get out each day. Services like coffee, food, haircuts, beauty treatments, gyms and other things that concentrate in cities will have an expanded urban market. Commuters, especially those on lower pay, will appreciate greatly not having to travel as far to get to work, saving money into the bargain.
On this basis, the 15-minute village (FMV) is likely to boom. This fundamental reshaping and decentralising of the economy and urban landscape is not just a winding back of the clock to when high streets were the place to be and the local businesses all had a shopfront. It won’t go that far because so many services are now digitally delivered, and those people working from home are the people who used to work in those now half-empty glass and steel tenancies.
Big cities will try to respond; after all, there are billions in commercial rents that depend on it. But the longer Covid-19 continues, the greater the opportunity to rebalance how our communities will grow.
Already, the unsung innovators are at it, with local authorities rapidly claiming space for cycling and walking using tactical urbanist approaches (read Susan Claris’ piece on how Milan has done exactly this). There’s no need to wait to design some complex new scheme – simply throw down some bollards and come back later for beautification. In the FMV, travel only requires space for citizens to make their own way: a leisurely cycle, a casual wander, these become part of the joy of working from home.
Commerce always flexes to respond to the demands of customers and, if customers have changed how they live, so the investors will have to chase their income to these new concentrations of activity. That will disrupt conventional assumptions for some time. Instead, the billions invested in servicing mass transport for peaks can instead achieve an all-day service across greater geography, giving people a new choice of when to travel and to where, without returning to private cars.
When people’s needs go beyond their FMV, they will still want a TMC. Nothing that is in use is wasted, it is just that the intensive use in peaks has dissipated. There lays the opportunity to improve the quality of life, the liveliness of local areas, the rates income to local governments and to harness something healthy and good from an otherwise terrible situation.
And FMV does not require a movement, a book or a website. It requires only that we appreciate the places in which we live and support the people and institutions that invest in it. And for governments and their transport agencies to read the data and respond appropriately.
Adapting to a COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major shock to the world. The human cost is hard to bear and our thoughts are with all those affected. As engineers, designers and consultants we have a role to play - this is a moment to be brave, try new ideas and collaborate to develop services and facilities our communities need.